Nonfiction: The Woman Who Created a Monster

By Fiona Sampson
304 pp. Pegasus Books. $28.95.

There have been more than 20 biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, including one in 1951 by Muriel Spark and one in 2001, considered by many to be definitive, by Miranda Seymour, who had access to previously unpublished documents. There is even a Mary Shelley encyclopedia. But Mary’s life has unending fascination — her elopement as a pale, beautiful, brilliant 16-year-old with Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was already married with a child; her starring role in Lord Byron’s famous challenge to the assembled company that rainy night on Lake Geneva, that each produce a ghost story. Of course, Mary, not either of the male poets, won the challenge. Thus was born “Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus,” about the creation of a desperately lonely monster who exacts vengeance on his maker by killing those closest to him, including his bride on their wedding night.

Now, in time for the 200th anniversary of “Frankenstein,” comes another biography, “In Search of Mary Shelley,” by the British poet Fiona Sampson. In previous biographies, Sampson writes, Mary has often come off as “little more than a bright spot being tracked as she moves from one location to another”; her goal is to “bring Mary closer to us.”

In attempting this, Sampson writes mostly in the present tense. As previous biographers have, she sees Mary’s turbulent life in the context of the Romantic Movement, and as part of an early wave of feminism that ended in the conservative Victorian era and its careful presentation of domestic contentment. In places, her book reads more like social history than biography. At almost every dramatic moment, Sampson digresses, filling in the picture with background information, some of it fascinating, some annoying.


The horrifying story of Mary’s birth in 1797, when a doctor’s dirty fingers fatally infected her mother, the feminist thinker Mary Wollstonecraft, as he extracted the afterbirth, is interrupted by a history of the neighborhood real estate and the renewal of the Alien Act (regulating the influx of émigrés in the wake of the French Revolution). Later, Sampson gives us details about the popularity of curtains in the early 19th century and the advent of “industrial rolled plate glass.” Referring to the rainy weather on the night of the ghost story challenge, she notes that “the European climate has been cooling since the mid-14th century.” (Once she mistakenly calls Byron’s half sister his stepsister.) Yet even Sampson’s most elaborate digressions can’t dampen the attraction of reading about a life as rich with romance and tragedy.

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